How Obama can keep hope alive for Troy Davis

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Yesterday, the execution date for Troy Davis was set for September 21, 2011. Davis, 42, who was sentenced to the death penalty after being convicted of killing Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Georgia in 1989, has become an international symbol of America’s broken justice system, particularly as it involves the application of capital punishment.

Even former President Jimmy Carter has called for clemency, noting that, “Executing Troy Davis without real examination of potentially exonerating evidence risks taking the life of an innocent man and that would be a grave miscarriage of justice.”

As President Carter’s comments suggest, the controversy surrounding Davis’ death sentence has largely stemmed from the belief that he could be innocent. In 1989, nine witnesses reported seeing Davis shoot MacPhail; however, since that time, seven of these nine witnesses have recanted their testimony.

The documented uncertainty of these witnesses, in addition to the fact that there has been no physical evidence linking Davis to the killing of the officer, have led the nation’s leading civil and human rights advocates, along with our nation’s political leaders, to express concern about the mediocre standards of proof used in an environment where decisions are made about whether someone lives or dies.

In 2008, as a result of multiple appeals, the Georgia Supreme Court temporarily stopped Davis’ execution, and in 2009 the federal district court was ordered to take another look at the case. Since that time, the support for Davis’ clemency has increased; with the NAACP, National Action Network, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and Amnesty International, among others, weighing in to try and permanently stop Davis’ execution.

“This case exemplifies why we give governors and pardon boards the power to commute death sentences,” Benjamin Todd Jealous, President/CEO of the NAACP told theGrio. “Two wrongs don’t make a right. All debates over the death penalty accounted for, our nation never intended for a person to be executed amid so much doubt.”
While Davis is set to go before the state board of pardons and paroles for a final review on September 19th, President Obama should consider granting clemency.

There are several arguments to support Obama’s intervention in this case, not the least of which is salvaging the U.S.’s reputation with regard to the integrity of its justice system. We learn in school that the fair administration of justice is a fundamental value in our democracy. We speak of our justice system as if it sets us apart from other leading nations and reflects, at its the core, the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven and the guarantee of a fair trial, if someone has been accused of breaking the law.

Still, for African Americans and Latinos, who are disproportionately in contact with justice system at several points along the continuum — from arrest through sentencing, including applications of the death penalty — the criminal justice system has failed to consistently produce unbiased results.

Racial disparities and the legacy of persistent structural barriers are so pronounced and pervasive that in many communities, the dominant perception is that the justice system is ill-equipped to administer justice fairly and uniformly to poor people and people of color. This is something that we can, and must correct in order to bring rigor and accountability to the administration of justice in America.

Ultimately, by granting clemency to Troy Davis, President Obama would demonstrate that he is actively listening — not only to the demands of civil and human rights advocates around the world — but also to the cries of our families who want justice in every community.

President Obama’s intervention in the Troy Davis case would signal, above all else, his commitment to justice for all. While Davis’ case has been inextricably woven into advocates’ articulation of the flaws associated with the application of the death penalty, it is also fundamentally about defending everyone’s the right to a fair administration of justice — irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, socioeconomic status, or any combination of the above. When there is doubt regarding culpability, there should not be an execution.

This is about justice, plain and simple.